Karla: I’ll admit, after years of fielding questions focused on women’s makeup, tattoos and clothing in the workplace, it’s refreshing to get a letter about men being judged on their appearance.
To recap: Generally, employers have the right to set and enforce grooming standards and dress codes — even arbitrary ones with no bearing on health, safety or performance. The policies just can’t discriminate against or impose an unequal burden on a particular gender, race, or other legally protected group. Employers should also accommodate workers with disabilities, medical conditions or religious beliefs that conflict with the policy.
It may not seem like a big deal to go along with an annoying workplace rule that does not personally cause you physical discomfort. But imagine if shaving daily were intensely painful and caused long-term damage to your skin. You don’t mention why your colleague sought a medical exemption, but a quick consult with Dr. Google indicates that a condition called pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB) — severe razor bumps often leading to infections and scarring — is a common reason for avoiding shaving.
It’s so common that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission mentions it in a fact sheet on workplace grooming and attire policies. And it specifically notes in another fact sheet that in some cases, a no-beard policy could be considered racially discriminatory against Black men, who are especially prone to developing PFB.
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I wonder why no one has pointed out that your colleague has followed the appropriate protocol to qualify for an exemption, and therefore he is in full compliance with company policy. If your general manager insists on punishing him for obtaining this medical accommodation, she may be inviting a lawsuit.
So, yeah. Your GM is being unprofessional, and possibly biased, and it’s high time someone asked HR to tell her to knock it off before she gets herself and her employer in trouble.
Even when it’s a matter of health and safety, accommodations are possible for those who are unable to shave for medical or religious reasons.
For example, coronavirus-preventive N95 masks are less effective when worn over beards, presenting a moral dilemma during the pandemic for health-care providers following the Sikh faith, which prohibits cutting or shaving hair. Although some made the difficult choice to shave, others were able to use equally effective alternative masking solutions and protective gear without having to violate the tenets of their faith.
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If it’s possible to work around a no-beard policy when the stakes are life and death, I’m hard-put to imagine a job where accommodation isn’t possible.
Then again, at least one federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Marine Corps should be allowed to prohibit Sikh personnel from wearing beards, turbans and other faith-based signifiers when joining boot camp, so the matter is far from settled.
At any rate, it’s worth questioning why the policy exists at your workplace.
Are there legitimate health or safety reasons? Or is this just one of those unexamined traditions where standards of “professional” hairstyles, speech patterns, appearance and demeanor just happen to align with the practices and preferences of the demographic in charge?
Again, it costs you little or nothing to comply with a clean-shave policy if your face and faith don’t object. These follicular follies may not be a hill worth sacrificing your career on. But by that logic, I would question whether this policy is the hill your employer’s integrity deserves to die on.